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President of Nauru Dies in Washington - 2003-03-10

The tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru has lost its president to heart disease. President Bernard Dowiyogo died Sunday in the United States.

Mr. Dowiyogo, 57, underwent 11 hours of emergency heart surgery a week ago after collapsing on a visit to Washington. A Nauru diplomat based in Australia says the U.S. Air Force has agreed to fly Mr. Dowiyogo's body back to Nauru.

Jack Sanders, a Nauru diplomat in Beijing, says the late president was key in mending diplomatic ties with Washington. Just days before his death Mr. Dowiyogo promised to ban offshore banking to crack down on money laundering.

"He is one of the elder statesmen of Nauru, and I think the people will always consider him as a president that has come in ... to find ways forward for the country," Mr. Sanders said. "The president ended the offshore banking in Washington. He signed off on an executive order on February 27, several days before he passed away."

Mr. Dowiyogo's death comes at a time when the island nation of 12,300 people faces political and economic turmoil.

Situated just south of the equator in the Pacific Ocean, Nauru was once rich from phosphate mining. Now it is effectively bankrupt, having lost millions of dollars in failed investments. Civil servants complain of missed wages and political deadlock.

Acting President Derog Gioura is likely to stay in office until general elections are held in a month.

Mr. Dowiyogo served six separate times as president in the late 1980s and '90s. His health deteriorated after he regained office in January.

Nauru hit the headlines in 2001 when the government made a controversial decision to host a detention center for hundreds of illegal migrants caught trying to enter Australia. In exchange, Nauru received about $10 million in financial aid from Australia.

Mr. Dowiyogo became involved in politics before Nauru gained independence from Australia in 1968. He leaves behind a wife and four children.